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US offered millions in effort to ‘blackmail’ Iran ship captain   

Image of an Iranian warship [PH1 Alex Hicks/Wikipedia]
Iranian warship [PH1 Alex Hicks/Wikipedia]

The US has been accused of resorting to blackmail and bribery after it offered millions of dollars to the captain of an Iranian oil vessel to navigate the ship to a country where it would be impounded on behalf of Washington.

Details of the proposal, reported in the Financial Times, exposed the incredible lengths to which the US under President Trump is willing to go to apply what it calls “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime. The millions that were offered came with the threat of sanctions against crew members that refused US inducements to turn on their employers in Tehran.

According to the FT, four days before the US imposed sanctions on the vessel that was seized by British commandos off Gibraltar in July on suspicions that it was carrying Iranian oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions, the vessel’s Indian captain, Akhilesh Kumar, received an unusual email from top Iran official at the Department of State, Brian Hook.

“This is Brian Hook . . . I work for secretary of state Mike Pompeo and serve as the US Representative for Iran,” Hook wrote to Kumar on 26 August, according to several emails that were seen by the FT. “I am writing with good news.”

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The “good news” was a financial inducement involving millions of dollars which the US was willing to pay the ship’s captain if he agreed to navigate the tanker to a country that would impound the vessel on behalf of the US. According to the report, to ensure that Kumar did not mistake the email for a scam, it included an official state department phone number.

The inducement is said to have been offered 11 days after the Iranian tanker was released by Gibraltar, where it had been at the centre of a stand-off between Iran and the UK after British naval forces seized it.

Hook however didn’t make contact with Kumar. In the kind of behaviour that is likely to have been viewed as being more akin to drug dealers and pirates more so than a representative of a democratic state, the US official threated the Indian captain.

“With this money you can have any life you wish and be well-off in old age,” Hook wrote in a second email to Kumar that also included a warning. “If you choose not to take this easy path, life will be much harder for you,” said Hook.

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Kumar did not take the bait and suffered consequences as a result. Following his decision to snub the US, Hook emailed the captain to say that the US Treasury had imposed sanctions on him.

Reacting to the news of financial inducements offered to the ship captain, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to denounce the US.

“Having failed at piracy, the US resorts to outright blackmail,” he said, adding “deliver us Iran’s oil and receive several million dollars or be sanctioned yourself.”

Zarif mocked the US saying “sounds very similar to the Oval Office invitation I received a few weeks back. It is becoming a pattern.”

The offer to Kumar, which many will see as a sign that the US is ready to cross any line in its effort to exert “maximum pressure” on Iran, comes as Washington faces stiff challenges from the five other signatories to the nuclear deal known as the 4+1 (UK, France, Germnay, Russia and China). The partners were known as the 5+1 when it was initially agreed in 2015 under former US President Barack Obama, but President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran; a move that triggered a dangerous diplomatic standoff and caused instability in the region.

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Iran has threatened to violate the terms of the deal by enriching uranium beyond the agreed purity level unless other partners to the deal step in to relive Tehran from the impact of sanctions on its oil export.  Earlier this week it was reported that talks were underway between France and Iran over a $15 billion package that will see the Islamic Republic compensated for oil sale losses to US imposed sanctions. However Iran rejected the offer, the National Iranian Television reported yesterday.

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